A journey into Romania's
child care protection system
"Hopes and optimistic future plans even in a Placement Centre"
Sheltering over 300 souls before 1989, the Placement Centre from Fierbinti is an old-type institution which has been restructured and brought to human standards. It now has in care 43 children.
Maria Farcas , 25th June 2005
We arrived at the Placement Centre in Fierbinti in a hot mid-June afternoon. Among mellow slopes, green fields, a shallow lake - useless remains of a long abandoned ambitious irrigation project. A small pub by the side of the road and well-behaved horses, overwhelmed with the heat and waiting patiently for their masters who were having a beer in the shade. Yes, they confirmed, you're almost there - and showed us the direction once more. Quite easy, given the fact there is only one main road and that's exactly where our destination was.
We entered the big yard which was lined with thick shade trees and gratefully breathed in the unmistakable countryside air. That wide space, the vegetable and flower beds, the orderly cleanliness of the place left me in awe since the very beginning. What I witnessed made disappear all those expectations I'd had - like so may others - according to which helplessness and desolation strike you as soon as you step into such an "orphanage".
We met the surprisingly young Mrs. Mariana Petcu, the manager of the centre, who instantly crushed another stereotype - the slow, bureaucratic, Kafkaesque system that makes you blindly grope between countless offices, endless paperwork and hierarchic decision making. We had spoken with Mrs. Petcu before, when she kindly gave us the permission to visit two of her residents, winners of the Edelweiss contest - not before she forwarded our request to her superiors at the Ialomita county CPD.
Smiling and self-assured, Mrs. Petcu showed us around the centre, telling us a few things of the place's past - some of the buildings were part of an old manor house - about the villagers, about the children she had in care, about future projects and problems she is facing. Many things have changed. In the general context of a prosperous institution, there is only one exception - a badly damaged building, in wait for funds that will turn it into something useful. Mrs. Mariana guided us around the former school, currently under renovation, as part of a project aimed at teenagers with slight handicaps, who will soon have to leave the centre. This future "Centre for Graduates" will host them for a while, the staff will be looking for jobs for them, will prepare them for their adult lives, but eventually they will still have to face life's hardships on their own. Although recently declared a city, Fierbinti does not exactly hold an array of job offers for young people. Agriculture is still the main occupation, while the centre's staff uses the immense garden that surrounds the centre in order to train the children into working the land. Their enthousiasm facing the tomato and spring onion ranges is at most moderate - their dreams are esentially urban.
The actual Centre looks like a hothouse - hundreds of decorative plants tended by the children. This is part of a project in collaboration with the Botanical Garden in Bucharest , which culminated with an exhibition where all villagers were invited and could buy the plants. The building is now almost empty, for almost all of the 43 boys (aged 14 to 21) are gone for private lessons, as they do every afternoon. I can't believe when I am told that 15 years ago this space was hosting 300 children. In a spacious, well lit room, where a few children are doing their homework and the TV set is switched on Animal Planet, Florin Ciobanu and Marian Raicu, two participants in the "Edelweiss" contest, are radiating with joy when they notice us. They rarely have visitors so our presence soon turned into a real event. They were dressed up, wearing their "Edelweiss" t-shirts. They consciously take over their role as guests and see us through the whole compound: bedrooms, reading room, library, leisure rooms. Florin takes his role as responsible for hygene very seriously. He makes a daily inspection of the boys' lockers and rooms, militantly pleading for the personal hygene and the washing of socks, reprimanding the guilty, handing in rules and making observations. He is passionately involved in his mission, although - he reckons - he's not always taken seriously by his older colleagues.
The other teenager, Marian Raicu, is the leader of "The Little Botanists" and ardently believes in what he is doing. He self consciously tells us the story of "How to Live in a Clean Environment" - a project initiated and developed by himself in order to raise awareness in the community about the quasi-unknown matters of ecology, pollution, waste. He also tells us how the local authorities got involved and how impressed the villagers were with the dedication of children who removed all plastic bottles and other waste from around the lake.
Upon entering the yard of the Placement Centre I had expected to see poverty and sadness grinning around corners - all I saw instead was a big, welcoming, solar, flourishing compound. Similarly, I used to have a strong misconception about the children in such an institution. Faces bearing the indelible stamp of sadness and lack of love, bruised, hopeless eyes, prematurely shattered wings - these were the tragic ghosts that were inhabiting my imagination, after being fed by 15 years of tearjerking, purposedly shocking films and documentaries.
Or Marian and Florin , our two guests, did not seem overwhelmed at all by a punishing destiny. On the contrary, they radiate normality and optimism. Students of the former schools for children with special needs, Florin and Marian were integrated within the regular curriculum and were totally up to the challenge, in spite of all expectations. "I've always had confidence in myself and this always pushed me forward. Others kept telling me I was not going to make it but here I am, I won a prize - mark 8,79, even though I was previously in a school for children with special needs", says Marian in a simple tone. He tells us about school and his teachers, about how thankful he is for not having ever been discriminated - on the contrary. "Teachers made a big difference between us coming from the Centre and the others - in terms of how we behave - and felt bound to tell the others: Look, there are differences between you and this child - how can he hold still, behave himself, not climb up the walls - conclusion: he is better educated!"
We're not asking Marian how he got into the child care system - it's not relevant and might seem to him cruel. Instead, he is sketching in a few words his touching story as an abandoned baby. He is telling us all this with the same disarming simplicity and premature wisdom, without begging for compassion, without bearing a grudge against his parents or whining about life being unfair. "I saw reality with my own eyes, I've been through so much - probably more distress than happy times - now times have changed since I came to Fierbinti. Full of hope, Marian tells us about his naïve, optimistic and daring dreams, just like any other teenager would. With a passion for computers, he is planning to write a book of his own - "The Computer - An Instrument for the Future". He dreams of finding a job in Bucharest , in an international organization working in the fields of environment or child protection. His moving inclination to protect bears witness of a childhood lacking the support and warmth of a family. Hesitatingly he confesses his ultimate dream: to make it to America , "the continent where the future comes from" - after which he puts his feet back on the ground admitting that "sometimes TV only shows us the bright side of things". He never mentions an aspiration to have a family and we decide to keep silent about it.
Sitting down in front of the computer, Florin and Marian are searching for other documents edited by them - poems of Eminescu on various original backgrounds, photographs patiently collected - a romantic sunset, the poster of an American movie, the logo and slogan of a TV station, an icon, a tropical island. They find a word document and anxiously open it. They start reading a summarized version of child rights, giving us explanations where needed. In the end, in a wise tone, Marian states: "Where there are rights there are always obligations". And he names a few of them, equally seriously: "to respect the staff of the Centre, to attend courses and behave properly, to respect one another".
We made a final tour of the Centre, along with the shy looks of other boys who had just come back from school, smiling but not really willing to talk. Marian and Florin self consciously see us out to the car and offer us an impressive bunch of spring onions. "You had better offer your visitors some flowers", comes the funny remark of Mrs. Petcu. The boys laugh, awkwardly. They thank us and ask when we are coming back. They are visibly proud that they and no one else were the centre of attention. We say goodbye to our hosts, to their sage or exalted dreams, to their overwhelming optimism, the premature wisdom of children who need to learn how to manage without a safety net throughout the trapeze-like jumps that life has in store for them.
We came back to Bucharest in a good mood, engulfed in the prevailing smell of onion.